In Surrey last December, a 19-year-old woman was found dead in a tent, less than a year after she had reached her 19th birthday and left the care system.
Bernard Richard, B.C.’s interim Representative for Children and Youth, told reporters, “We can’t do anything for her. But we need to be able to respond to others before the same thing happens to them. … Many of them are not aging out of care, they’re dying out of care.”
He’s right — and it’s not strictly a B.C. problem, either.
Last week, End Homelessness in St. John’s released its first snapshot of the number of people who are homeless in Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city.
They found 166 on Nov. 30, when their survey was conducted; 38 of them were between the ages of 16 and 24.
Of the rest, many had started on the streets just as early: “It is alarming that nearly three out of five respondents first became homeless before age 24 years,” the report says. Similar surveys in P.E.I. have found fewer homeless youth, but that doesn’t mean everything’s fine.
The Cape Breton Regional Municipality found that 19 per cent of the 137 people in its homeless survey were youth under 24, and the trend is fairly strong.
Youth homelessness is only part of a larger problem, but it is particularly significant, first, because youth might not have anything near the tools and supports they need to get off the streets, and second, because they still have a lifetime of potential ahead of them.
If we can’t get the youngest among our homeless people off the streets by early intervention, what chance is there for those who have spent longer living rough, and whose suffering and needs may be even more ingrained? And with so many of the homeless starting their transient lives early in life, it may well be an opportunity to reduce the number of older homeless people as well.
Financial supports are needed, along with everything from the possibility of education and training resources to mental health supports.
Foster care is often a stopgap for children in abusive situations. It’s hard to imagine where young people find themselves when, all at once, they’re too old for foster care and have to fend for themselves, despite the bridging programs that exist. The experience must be jarring, frustrating, frightening, and more than challenging.
There are supports — some from governments, others from community organizations — but we have to do better.
Young people have to have options that don’t include being found dead in a tent in in the woods in Surrey, B.C.